Terror has no logic. Satan is an anarchist whose kingdom is derivative, perverted, and unsustainable. This must temper our attempts and claims to understand terrorism. As the missionary who guided us through the gas chambers and incinerators of the Buchenwald concentration camp put it, “You cannot rationally explain pure evil.”
With that in place, let me suggest that there is something about the recent attacks by ISIS on Paris and Beirut that should simultaneously alarm and convict followers of Jesus. For all that we may never understand about this brand of terrorism, one component of their beliefs is clear: their extremism is driven by their eschatology, that is, their beliefs about the end times.
Drawing from the Hadith, the reported sayings of Mohammed, ISIS has constructed a version of the end times whose fulfillment began with their capture of Dabiq, Syria. As they establish their caliphate (Islamic kingdom) there, they believe that the antichrist will arise and defeat the majority of the caliphate’s fighters. Then, just as ISIS faces their annihilation, they believe Jesus will return to earth, destroy the antichrist, and lead true Muslims to eternal, worldwide rule.*
This is not the first time extremism has been driven by eschatology. The muddled history of the crusades aside, even recent American history has been blotched by horrific violence flowing from apocalyptic visions. Jim Jones, who infamously led 900 of his followers to a mass suicide, swayed them with fears of nuclear war and promises of translation to a paradisiacal planet if they died together. Charles Manson entranced his “Family” with visions of an impending race war called Helter Skelter, during which the Family would hide underground and after which they would rule the post-apocalyptic community. Manson ordered his followers to murder unsuspecting acquaintances to catalyze these last times.
The list of end times lunacy is depressingly long, and we should not dignify these schemes with too much of our attention. Yet here is the challenge they pose to us as followers of Jesus: are our lives proportionately radical to the Bible’s portrayal of the end? Are we gripped with a vision of Christ’s appearing, the judgment of humanity, and God’s consummation of his everlasting kingdom? Are we more influenced by Babylon the Great–a system of consumeristic bliss and sexual permissiveness–or the New Jerusalem–a city of unadulterated worship of God and harmony with one another?
The portions of the Bible that develop Christian eschatology were not meant for predicting events or signaling when we should stockpile food and arms in preparation for Armageddon. Rather, the fantastical imagery of dragons and beasts, whores and brides, seals and trumpets, thrones and fire, golden streets and crystal seas are meant to captivate the imagination and fuel the endurance of God’s people.
Our spiritual battle is real, and Satan will use everything from false teaching to persecution to affluence to sexual temptation in order to draw the saints away from faithfulness to Christ and his kingdom. The vision of the future laid out in the Bible is meant to so grip us that we hold fast to the true gospel, endure suffering, relinquish the comforts of this life, and consecrate our bodies for Christ’s use rather than self-focused passions.
This is the extremism our eschatology should create–not physical violence but warfare engagement in the service of our King. His call is to love our enemies, hold our possessions loosely, and testify to his resurrected Son until the window for repentance has closed. May our lives reflect the radical future he has prepared for us.
*A more in-depth account of ISIS’ eschatology can be found in Graeme Wood’s article, What ISIS Really Wants.